5th T2M Annual Conference, Helmond, Netherlands, October 2007
Newsletter editor Mike Esbester recalls his time at the Helmond conference.
Before the conference I had to spend some time reassuring friends and family that, no, I wasn’t going to Helmand Province (Afghanistan), but Helmond (Netherlands). Arriving at Helmond station mid-afternoon on the Thursday, I caught the bus to the mysterious Hotel Nobis, situated on a picturesque industrial estate somewhere out of Helmond.
I suspect that this will linger strong in the minds of many participants. The Nobis, where the majority of delegates were staying, was a bit of a trek out of Helmond, which meant that the shuttle bus that carried people back and forth between locations was well-used. Having split locations was a bit of a pain, but, in the spirit of things, it didn’t hinder the conference.
Over 100 people from five continents attended the conference, presenting, listening, questioning, arguing, socialising, sightseeing and – above all – thinking. The conference opened on the Thursday evening at Helmond castle. After the obligatory academic fumbling with the mics, the floor was turned over to keynote speaker Victoria de Grazia, whose address covered the expansion of global consumer culture over the past 100 years. For me, de Grazia was engaging, but the questions really helped to draw the focus back towards transport and mobility issues, using de Grazia’s images to tease out how and why transport had been sold in the twentieth century. The reception that followed was a good chance to start catching up with friends and colleagues – probably helped by the wine!
David Gartman’s keynote address on the Friday morning was a rigorous but entertaining look at ‘automotive fetishism’, tracing the car’s gradual move away from a technology of freedom to a technology that was, and is, privileged as an end in its own right. His conclusion suggested that this fetishism may be wearing off, although the questions from the audience indicated that they weren’t so sure.
The parallel sessions started with an excellent mix of topics and approaches, with papers on welsh railways (including suggestions of nepotism, and intrigue and acrimonious rivalry between two heritage organisations), urban transportation and, following one of the conference themes, transport heritage. As ever, with parallel sessions there were two problems: you can’t get to all of the papers you want to hear/ discuss, and some of the sessions were poorly attended. The panel on road policy didn’t suffer from this last fault, with papers covering South America, Britain and the USA. One paper that I found particularly engaging in this session was Laurell Cornell’s look at pedestrian – or as she termed them, ‘walker’ – safety, as viewed by American road designers in the twentieth century. It was refreshing to find someone who was examining the road system in terms of one group of users who are often marginalised in favour of motorised transport.
The conference separated on Friday afternoon for the excursions – some went off to the Aviodrome aircraft museum, some on an industrial heritage tour of Helmond, but I joined the group led by Paul van Heesvelde across the border into his native Belgium, to a railway warehouse, now sheltering preserved locomotives, coaches and freight stock from Belgian State Railways. Having been based for some years at the National Railway Museum (NRM) in the UK, the contrast could not have been greater: there the exhibits are just that – exhibits, with interpretation, a huge variety of artefacts, and large numbers of visitors. In Leuven, the warehouse was not publicly accessible – we were only allowed in because of Paul’s contacts. There simply isn’t the funding – and possibly not the public enthusiasm – to turn the warehouse into a museum, so this had the air of a storage facility, with no interpretation, and work carried out as and when people could. This made for an interesting difference, however: unlike the NRM, there was a feeling that this was somehow closer to the reality of dirty, dangerous work on the steam age railway. From one extreme to another, as Paul then took us on a guided tour of the medieval town, finishing up with an excellent meal and some very intense discussions!
Another early start on the Saturday, but it was worth it for a session which I must confess I had my worries about: how were papers on queuing, the ‘emotional attractiveness’ of transport design, and transport and cremation going to work as a panel? I needn’t have worried, however, as the papers were interesting and the links were ably dissected by the audience, concentrating on how and why people move (or don’t move, in the case of queuing) and the role emotions play in mobility. Design – one of the conference themes – featured strongly in several of the panels, including the politics of designing road safety, and the design of railway stations (which featured some quite heated debate).
The afternoon’s session was an unusual format for the conference: a public plenary, starting with a roundtable discussion between design historians. Penny Spark, Anne Wealleans, David Gartman, Greg Votolato and Jochen Eisenbrand each talked the audience through a set of images to try and pull out themes around mobility and design. I’m not sure that this format worked, as it seemed more like a disconnected set of comments, and the focus was on cars almost to the exclusion of other modes of transport, but it was an interesting experiment. The interview with Penny Sparke and Greg Votolato was more fluid, taking questions from the floor and discussing the gendering of mobility. The reception following the plenary gave people an opportunity to explore the ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ exhibition of work by design students at Dutch universities, a part of Dutch Design Week.
The Members’ Meeting on the Saturday afternoon was reasonably attended, and saw the announcement of the results for the EC elections, including Hans Dienel’s installation as President-Elect. A number of important issues were discussed, including the level of the membership fee, the proposed summer school for postgraduate students, T²M’s affiliation with the Journal of Transport History and the possibility of producing our own journal. This last topic generated a lot of discussion, with a further suggestion being that T²M start a yearbook, possibly following the conference theme, or possibly being based around invited essays discussing the state of our discipline. The EC are looking into the viability of these suggestions, so watch this space! Perhaps most significantly, there was a debate about how T²M should be organised – whether along existing lines, or by adopting a federal structure, with a number of continental organisations, linked but otherwise independent. (This proposal is discussed elsewhere in this edition of the newsletter.)
The Saturday evening was spent at the DAF Museum in Eindhoven, another excellent and highly appropriate setting for T²M to eat, drink and socialise in. Surrounded by cars, trucks, fire engines, personnel carriers and all types of automotive transport, the meal was perhaps less banquet-like than we had expected, but we made the most of it (and the plentiful alcohol). As ever, the atmosphere was lively, silenced only for the speeches and prizes (see Corinne Mulley and Clay McShane’s accounts of the prizes in this newsletter).
Sunday was surprisingly well-attended, given the alcohol that was consumed the night before. A fascinating session saw Hans Dienel and Jochen Eisenbrand looking at the passenger experience of flying and using railways, before the final plenary session which posed some tough questions to the audience. George Revill asked us to think more about the micropolitics of mobility and relations of power, a theme taken up in Pete Merriman’s analysis of the UK’s highway code for road users. Colin Divall concluded the plenary by asking us to consider our role as historians of transport, traffic and mobility, and how we might engage with policy makers and a wider public.
It only remains to thank the programme committee and local organisers, and note that Ottawa promises to build upon this year’s conference – see you there!